Go tell it to the mountain: A Switzerland adventure

Go tell it to the mountain: A Switzerland adventure

There aren’t many countries where you can sit in the spot where it all began. Relaxing in a small meadow on Lake Lucerne’s shores, however, I can make that claim for Switzerland. Here on this patch of grass on 1 August 1291, representatives of three small alpine valleys got together and signed a pact from which modern Switzerland emerged. August 1 is now a national holiday, and the meadow’s name, Field of Rütli, resonates through Swiss history.

True, I don’t find much happening in Rütli these days, but it’s a fine place for a picnic and a good location to start an exploration of the Swiss heartland around Lake Lucerne, where history and scenery are equally dramatic. It’s also the spot to start my hunt for William Tell, the local lad who fought for freedom and became the world’s most famous Swiss.

I arrive from Lucerne by steamer on an astonishingly scenic ride down its lake, embraced in mountains. My aim is to walk parts of the 36-kilometre Swiss Path, created for the 700th anniversary of Switzerland. With Swiss precision, the pathway is divided into segments representing its 26 cantons. As I walk, signs informs me when each canton joined the confederation, and gives a background to their history. It’s a lovely walk, the path sometimes talking to footbridges across streams and tunnels through cliffs. The landscape is surprisingly wild and rugged: quite the contrast to the bourgeois prettiness of downtown Lucerne.

The following morning, a yellow postal bus deposits me back on the Swiss Path at Altdorf, a pleasant town of cobbled squares, painted houses and elaborate shop signs. A twist of bread marking a bakery directs me to a scrumptious almond croissant. Altdorf is the birthplace of William Tell, whose statue I find at the base of a medieval tower. The hero stands with his crossbow over his shoulder, his arm around his son. The monument marks the place where Tell was forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head by Gessler, an arrogant Hapsburg overlord.

As I walk onwards, the valley narrows and the cliffs close in. Steep ups and downs challenge my lungs and knees. There’s only enough flat land to support a few villages under towering snow-capped peaks. It’s a rewarding hike to the Tell Chapel along the lake’s shore, which is painted with scenes from Tell’s life. It was from this spot that the hero supposedly leapt from a boat taking him to captivity. Tell fled into the forest and later shot Gessler dead with his crossbow, sparking Swiss independence.

Nearby Schwyz sits high above Lake Lucerne in a wide valley of cherry orchards surrounded by snowcapped mountains. This now-quiet backwater canton gave its name and flag to Switzerland, and became famed for its mercenaries, who returned to build the impressive townhouses. The Town Hall is exuberant: cherubs hang over every window and frescoes depict historical battles.

In contrast, the Federal Archives are kept in an ultra-modern, concrete building on the edge of town. I drop by to see the original Oath of Alliance signed at the Field of Rütli. Other proclamations mark the adherence of new cantons to Switzerland, each becoming increasingly ornate with ribbons and wax seals. Few countries in the world have such delightful birth certificates.

Back by Lake Lucerne, I follow the road to Gersau. Improbably, this was once the world’s smallest republic, independent from 1390 to 1817. At Vitznau I enjoy modern evidence of Switzerland’s fighting spirit at Mühleflüh Artillery Fortress, decommissioned in 1998. I enjoy a scramble through underground bunkers to inspect barracks, kitchens and artillery batteries beneath fake rocks.

From here, legs weary, I take to the rack railway up Mt Rigi, and the views become ever more expansive around each dizzying bend. Lake Lucerne shrinks to a puddle and a 200-kilometre range of jagged snow peaks emerges on the horizon. Though less glamorous than more famous viewpoints near Lucerne, such as the James Bond movie setting, Mt Pilatus, Rigi provides a landscape to make my soul sing. Even the cows seem to pause in their chewing and bell-clanking to contemplate the scenery that plunges below their flowery pastures.

At the western end of the lake I’m back to base at Lucerne, whose old town straddles the Reuss River and looks onto the yacht-studded lake and panorama of alpine peaks. In 1332, Lucerne became the first big town to join the alliance of alpine cantons. It’s crammed with old guild houses, baroque churches and ornamental fountains. I study a cartoon-like account of its history on the painted panels that line its famous symbol – a covered wooden bridge. One shows William Tell with his crossbow at the ready. The timeline shows me something that I’ve already gathered: Switzerland has a birthplace, a proper birth certificate, and a mythical founding father, providing a story to delight me.

Written by Brian Johnston. Republished with permission of MyDiscoveries.